After harping on the same series for three blog posts in a row, of course I’m going to pick on theme for a little while.
English professors and teachers really harp on themes with their students. As a writer, I can say any theme anything of mine ever has is about 99.9% of the time pure accident. I can see them if I read the stories as an English major, but as a writer, they aren’t my focus. So why do teachers emphasis theme so much in their courses?
I think some of the problem is a confusion between what is a theme and what is a message. There are a limited number of themes, mostly because they have to be so general. Common ones (i.e. off the top of my head) are coming of age, handling–or in some cases, not handling–grief, discrimination or prejudice of some sort.. See how vague these are? Many can be applied to almost any story. English people can argue the importance of them all they like. I honestly find them pointless as hell and usually meaningless to a reader. Instead, they’ve become terms for critics and book jacket summary writers to throw around like purple prose. It’s stopped being helpful for finding books we like since every time a book that claims to have one of these themes becomes popular, suddenly everything on the shelf has the exact same theme.
The book (or series) message is a little more complicated and sometimes hard to pin down. Some writers claim their books have no message, meant to be purely entertaining reads. Personally, I find those books boring or that there is a message, the writer just didn’t want to admit to it. A message doesn’t have to be some big, deep monster of a thing that’s meant to change the way people think. It could be something simple, like Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series. The first book’s message is treating everyone fairly, and standing up to bullies. Each book has a similar message, even with a bunch of themes tacked on.
The difference between a theme and a message is its specifity, at least for me. If it’s some unconcrete thing that is never really mentioned at all in the text, then it’s a theme and pointless. But if it is mentioned in the text, and the writer is far more obviously trying to convey it to their audience, to give them something to take home at the end of the day, then it’s a message. Again, it could be something really simple.
In my own work, I’m currently revising Mari’s first book, Bandit’s Escape, and outlining the second book, Bandit’s Chance. I can see themes of coming of age, discrimination, feminism, and family being applied to these books without my input, plus lord knows what else I didn’t think of. But the overall message of this series is about out-growing a childhood home, and having to forge a path to find a new one, even in the face of adversity and controversy. I’m also joining the movement to prove female heroes can be strong without sacrificing their femininity or resorting to rape plots. The latter are my biggest pet peeve. It’s becoming a little too common for me. I’m not saying I’ll never use them, but I definitely want to avoid them if at all possible.
More than theme, I think the writer’s message should be looked at, both what they intended and what they actually did write. Themes are cookie-cutter and too general of a lense to reflect on writing, not to mention constantly mixing with message. Focusing on message is better for judging the writer’s intent, and what the point of the book is.